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Pre-K funding: State, educators eye reliable system for public preschool programs

Nathalie Dagrella teaches her pre-K class at Shepherd's

Nathalie Dagrella teaches her pre-K class at Shepherd's Gate Academy in Brentwood on Friday, March 4, 2016. The academy provides preschool services for the Brentwood school district. Access to quality, full-day pre-K is lacking for the majority of 4-year-olds on Long Island, state and local data show. Credit: Barry Sloan

Long Island school districts lack a reliable funding stream for public prekindergarten and serve less than one-third of an estimated 28,000 eligible 4-year-old children, even as support grows for a universal program available to all children.

The current facts are these: New York State’s 700-plus school districts must compete each year for a limited number of grants to be able to offer prekindergarten. Over time, a patchwork of six different funding streams has developed, leading to erratic delivery of money, and districts scrambling to hire and staff classrooms at the last minute.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposed budget — being debated this month in Albany — calls for yet another way to fund pre-K, with money to expand education to some 3-year-olds.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia is a strong advocate for ending the current mishmash of funding streams, saying the system needs to be streamlined into one steady, reliable allocation.

That, she told Newsday in an interview, would eliminate the competitive grant process “which pits children against children. So a district that is good at writing grants has the opportunity to get the funding, and someone else who may need it doesn’t get it.”

The majority of the more than 8,400 children in Nassau and Suffolk counties who are enrolled in prekindergarten through the public schools are in half-day programs available in about 55 of the 124 districts on the Island. Roughly 25 systems provide full-day classes and 11 of those offer a mix of both, according to a Newsday analysis of information the newspaper received from districts for the 2015-16 academic year and the most recent figures available from the state Education Department.

Statewide, many districts use a lottery system to enroll students in a full-day program, effectively shutting out thousands of families each year.

Elia, echoing a Board of Regents initiative, strongly supports what is commonly called “universal pre-K” — a comprehensive, full-day program for all 4-year-olds. She told lawmakers at a joint legislative budget hearing in January that it is a top priority, citing studies that indicate children who participate in high-quality preschool programs are 50 percent less likely to be placed in special education courses, 25 percent less likely to drop out of school, and 60 percent more likely to attend some college.

“Parents of kindergartners tell me all the time that they see the importance and benefits of having sent their children to pre-K,” Elia told Newsday. Most people, she said, realize that early childhood education is valuable — and also see that children who don’t have access to pre-K programs have knowledge “gaps” when they enter kindergarten.

Universal pre-K continues to be a major governmental issue. Its expansion is among the funding decisions that lawmakers in Albany will weigh in considering Cuomo’s proposed budget, which allocates $385 million for universal pre-K statewide — part of an infusion of $1.5 billion over five years that the governor committed in 2013 for a phase-in of the program.

Nationally, prekindergarten has been a topic in the presidential debates and the focus of extensive new research and articles. Some educators, both on Long Island and elsewhere in the state, predict pre-K inevitably will become a new grade level, stretching public school education from K-12 to pre-K through 12.

But that is a question for the future.

Brentwood parent Nicole Steffenson grappled with a pre-K pitfall this school year, with her 5-year-old twin boys, Lucas and Logan.

Lucas was selected in September via lottery for a full-day slot at Shepherd’s Gate Academy, which provides services for the public school district. Logan was not chosen for a full-day seat and went to a half-day program in another location.

The boys were heartbroken when separated, she said, and the logistics were difficult for her.

“It was very hard,” she said. “There were two schools, two drop-offs and two pickups at different times.”

In November, Brentwood school officials learned they had qualified for a state grant and were able to add more than 250 children to the full-day program. Logan was accepted.

“I felt like a great weight was lifted,” his mother said.

Many school districts that have full-day programs use similar lottery systems to select students. There is also a mix of delivery methods, with some districts offering pre-K in their own schools or facilities and others contracting with community-based organizations, also known as CBOs. Public school students attend such off-campus programs at no cost to parents.

The state’s current pre-K programs include a mandate that at least 10 percent of a district’s investment be made in community-based organizations — private child-care centers and nonprofit and faith-based organizations — that serve young children from birth to age 5.

The momentum for creation of prekindergarten in New York also comes as full-day kindergarten is nearly universal statewide — even though New York is one of only five states that does not mandate kindergarten in its education laws. In the 2014-15 school year, 18 of more than 700 districts statewide offered just half-day kindergarten. This year, that number fell to eight — with Harborfields being the lone half-day kindergarten on the Island — and is expected to drop further.

“More and more districts are interested in prekindergarten and full-day programs, but there are some challenges with space, predictability of funding and appropriate funding to really cover the costs,” said Lucinda Hurley, executive director of the Nassau BOCES Department of Strategic Initiatives, which launched an Islandwide pre-K initiative to strengthen the relationship between public schools and CBOs.

Some of the groundswell was spurred by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2013 campaign promise to expand universal pre-K in the nation’s largest school system and offer a full-day classroom spot to every 4-year-old in the city. In the 2015-16 academic year, there were 68,500 students enrolled in such programs across the five boroughs, more than triple the number before that initiative, essentially guaranteeing a spot for every 4-year-old that applied.

Also in 2013, Cuomo committed to the five-year phase-in of universal pre-K. Advocates, educators and some local politicians have noted since then that much of the funding has gone to New York City, and said it is time to spread the wealth more proportionately across the state.

Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos said in October that Nassau school districts were shortchanged $77 million in state money for prekindergarten when compared with the funding allocated to educate 4-year-olds in New York City.

According to Maragos’ analysis, Nassau County received pre-K funding for 20 percent of its 4-year-old children, while New York City got money for 70 percent of its 4-year-olds.

“We should make a very strong effort to offer pre-K in our districts, and we have an obligation to fund those programs similarly to New York City,” Maragos said.

The Alliance for Quality Education, a nonprofit advocacy group that conducted its own analysis, said more than 89,000 4-year-olds statewide, outside New York City, were waiting for full-day pre-K this year.

Because of the erratic nature of pre-K funding, and the fact that districts that receive extra grants can add programs well into the school year, exact enrollment figures are difficult to calculate. The state looks at the number of enrolled kindergarten students to reach an approximate number of eligible 4-year-olds.

High-quality, full-day pre-K is described as giving 4-year-olds a combination of structured play, group time, rest time, opportunities for pretend play, and story and music time. A full day is at least five hours. A half-day is at least two-and-a-half hours.

“All children benefit from having a preschool experience, because that is where they will build critical pre-literacy and numeracy skills, but more importantly, social/emotional skills,” said Dana Friedman, president of the former Early Years Institute, a Plainview-based regional organization that focused on school readiness. “Every other industrialized nation has more than 90 percent of young children in some form of a free early childhood program.”

Some on Long Island were hopeful that Cuomo’s budget proposal would boost efforts outside of the city, but it appears to have fallen short.

The governor, in addition to proposed funding for 4-year-old pre-K programs, also calls in his budget for $22 million to expand half-day and full-day preschool for 3-year-olds.

Early childhood educators are skeptical about starting to fund programs for 3-year-olds when universal pre-K access for 4-year-olds remains limited.

“We were hoping there might be an expansion of opportunities to participate in universal pre-K, opening it up for other Long Island districts to apply,” Hurley said. “We were also a little surprised that rather than continue to concentrate on the expansion of the 4-year-olds, the focus is on the 3-year-olds.”

Elia, in her testimony to lawmakers, said, “While we are encouraged by efforts to expand pre-K to 3-year-olds, we should first ensure that all 4-year-olds have a high-quality pre-K seat before we continue to expand the scope of the program.”

Another concern is making early childhood education too academic for the youngest students. Adding a new, younger grade level could threaten the learning and problem-solving achieved through unstructured free play, some experts said.

Pushing down a kindergarten curriculum and trying to adapt it to 3- and 4-year-olds isn’t considered “best practices,” said Dori Phalen, director of early childhood education at the Ruth S. Ammon School of Education at Adelphi University. Neuroscience research has shown very young children do not process information the same way older ones do.

“In early childhood, there’s no one magic bullet,” Phalen said. “There isn’t one particular curriculum that’s better than the other. You have to look at your population and what works for them.”

Not all parents endorse full-day programs either. Some families turn down the opportunity for a free, full-day spot because of logistics concerns. Unlike kindergarten, school busing often isn’t offered for pre-K students. Additionally, some pre-K programs do not provide the early drop-off and after-school care that working parents need.

Underlying it all is a foundational uncertainty: Because kindergarten and prekindergarten are not mandated in New York, the programs are vulnerable to being cut when funding tightens. The cost for a quality pre-K program can run about $10,000 per child. And school districts, which rely heavily on local property taxes, must develop spending plans that are subject to the state-imposed 2 percent tax cap.

“Frankly, there is a recognition that expanding prekindergarten is a good thing to do, a valuable thing to do, but there are other financial concerns for school districts as well,” said Bob Lowry, the New York State Council of School Superintendents’ deputy director for advocacy and communication. “We are supportive of increasing pre-K funding, but we want to be assured districts get adequate help with basic operating needs, and that does not suffer as a result of a focus on pre-K.”

There also have been concerns that universal pre-K could hurt the business of day-care centers that serve preschoolers.

“Taking the 4-year-olds out of child-care centers ruins their economic model,” Friedman said. “The fees from 4-year-olds essentially subsidize the higher cost of care for 2- and 3-year-olds.”

Still, with the increasing availability of grants both state and federal, some Long Island districts have been able to grow their prekindergarten programs.

Middle Country is among them. The large Suffolk district received $4 million in state funds for 23 in-district pre-K classes so that every child turning 4 by Dec. 1 is guaranteed a spot. This school year, that money paid for 511 pre-K spots — 430 of which are full-day, up from 237 the previous school year.

The program currently has 530 students. The district has two school buildings dedicated exclusively to universal pre-K and kindergarten classes. Some 100 other children in the district either attend private preschool or stay home.

“Tomorrow, if number 531 showed up, he’ll get in. We aim to be truly universal,” said Denise Ferrara, associate director of Middle Country’s universal pre-K program. “We strive to not have a lottery, and we are lucky in that our district places a high value on pre-K.”

The district is spending $800,000 to supplement what’s not covered by the state grant.

At the same time, administrators are aware of the discomfiting reality that budgetary constraints and a loss of state funding could eliminate their pre-K program instantly.

“It is the new normal, but how are you going to pay for it?” Superintendent Roberta Gerold said. “As finances become tight, you look at what’s mandated — and that’s what you fund first.”

Long Beach schools now offer a half-day program, and Superintendent David Weiss has been closely following what funding could be made available to expand it.

“We still haven’t served all the 4-year-olds on Long Island,” he said. “Is this [state] money going to be directed to helping us do that or to the expansion for 3-year-olds in the city — which is obviously a need, but it is not our need.”

Leah Tozer, a parent in the district, has a 5-year-old daughter who attended the half-day prekindergarten program last year. She has a 2-year-old son who will be going to prekindergarten at the Lido School in two years, and she would like to see him in a full-day program.

Tozer, 41, an owner and broker of her own real estate company, said she drove her daughter from one pre-K program to another in the middle of the day. She would like Long Beach to offer a true universal pre-K program like that offered in New York City.

“Our taxes are higher here anyway ... and it is really not fair,” she said. “All the teachers were amazing and we loved them, so you felt so good about it. It would be so much better if the kids could be in one place.”

Middle Country educators said they are able to allow children to explore and learn at their own pace with the full-day program that enables them to have students for six hours and 20 minutes each school day, following the academic calendar.

On a recent morning inside a classroom at the Unity Drive Pre-Kindergarten/Kindergarten Center in Centereach, Dominic Lopez, 4, took a dropper of blue-colored water and was about to drop it into a vial of yellow-colored water. Three other students in his group, led by head teacher Tracy Wilson, were waiting to guess which color the combination would create — green or purple.

To give their individual answers, the children jumped on pieces of green and purple paper taped to the floor. The excited students laughed and wriggled around, but they also were part of the scientific process — predicting, guessing and observing as the two colors combined.

Full-day pre-K gives students and teachers time to explore and develop such concepts, educators said. The concepts are reinforced throughout the day, and the children have the time they need to complete tasks independently.

“We live in such a hurried 21st-century world. Children really feel hurried, and what they really need is to slow down,” said Debbie Wolfe, principal at Unity Drive. “That social thinking takes time, unhurried and with other children around. And with no screen time.”

One group leading the charge on Long Island is the Long Island Pre-K Initiative, a grant-funded project administered by Nassau County BOCES that seeks to strengthen partnerships between school districts and community-based organizations and to share information about research, policy and best practices for early learning.

The partnership includes the Nassau and Suffolk Child Care Councils, all three BOCES districts on the Island and other community-based organizations interested in prekindergarten. The group looks at ways to best use the resources available and make Long Island more competitive for grants and funding to establish programs.

The expansion of pre-K also has led to increased efforts to train teachers of the youngest students. At a recent session at the Westbury Nassau BOCES office, teachers played with blocks, painted on filters and cut shapes out of felt to show the best way to teach and align the Common Core standards with preschoolers’ lessons.

Hurley, of Nassau BOCES, stressed that any curriculum for the youngest learners should include aspects of play.

“It is not so much that the Common Core is taking the playtime out, it is the expectation of what good pre-K education looks like,” she said. “When you understand what good pre-K education looks like, you understand that it will include play, and activities the children engage in playtime align very nicely with the structure of the Common Core and what’s expected of children at that developmental stage.”

Unique Wilson, the lead prekindergarten teacher in Roosevelt and a workshop participant, was learning new ways to express the curriculum in the classroom. His district has offered a full-day universal pre-K program for decades, he said, but there is not enough to meet demand. Roosevelt has had full-day pre-K since 1969.

“We have a waiting list constantly, because there is not enough funding,” Wilson said. “We don’t even publicize it. They come in to us and our numbers fill up within a month.

“For us, in our district it is very important. It gives them that early boost and early exposure. Our children leave pre-K with a wealth of knowledge and they go into kindergarten extremely prepared.”

With Michael R. Ebert

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